Trent Meisenheimer gives readers advice for first getting into backcountry riding as well as why taking things conservatively in the backcountry is the way to go.
Utah Avalanche Center Forecaster, video producer, and avalanche education and awareness specialist, Trent Meisenheimer, spent his childhood at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains. From a young age, he was fascinated by avalanches, but it wasn’t until high school that he began to explore the inner reaches of his home range with a family friend and mentor. After high school, Meisenheimer pursued a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Utah and is currently completing a master's degree in the department of mechanical engineering with a thesis on snow and avalanches that focuses on environmental fluid dynamics. But when asked about how he applies what he knows to staying safe, there’s one theme that resonates throughout his skin track-bound adventures—to stay safe, you need to pay attention to slope angles and stay off the steep ones. Here’s what he has to say about his conservative approach and why he prefers chill days spent below 30 degrees of slope angle.
Backcountry Access: How were you introduced into the backcountry scene?
Trent Meisenheimer: I first got a splitboard in 2002, which is roughly 18 years ago. I was lucky enough that my dad was a backcountry skier and took me out for my first tour, but I really didn’t get into it until a few years later. When I was 18 years old, I went to the mountain every day and did a mix of resort riding and riding in the backcountry. I was lucky enough that one of my dad’s good friends, Rick Hoffman—who was probably in his 60s at the time—was retired and he had about 30 years of experience in the backcountry. So, every day that I went out with Rick, we’d go into a new zone and I’d see a random peak and I’d say. “Let’s go there!” And time and time again he’d just say, “Not today.” I never understood why. At that time I was like, “Well why wouldn’t I go there? That line looks sick.” And he would always say, “There will be a time to ride that line but it’s not today.” It took many years to understand what he was doing.
BCA: What would you tell someone just getting into touring?
TM: My advice to anyone getting into the backcountry—especially people coming from resort backgrounds—is to pay attention to the slope angle, it’s everything. Most avalanches happen between 30 and 40 degrees, so really anything over 30 degrees in the backcountry is avalanche terrain. At the resort, 30 degrees just doesn’t feel steep. If you’re a black diamond or double black diamond rider, 30 degrees feels very mellow. And we know that most avalanches happen at 38 degrees, which is a black diamond run at a ski area. So my advice for someone getting into the backcountry is that you just have to go slow and you have to understand the slope angles and you’re going to do that by taking an avalanche class. And that avalanche class has to be on snow. Then I would say, my second step—look for a mentor. I think that’s invaluable. I’m not talking about someone with 3 to 5 years of experience. You want someone with 10 years of experience or more because chances are that if they’ve made it through 10 winters and haven’t been killed, they’re doing something right.
One of my biggest mistakes is that if I hadn’t had Rick on those early days if I’d just paired up with a buddy who was as stoked as I was, I don’t know if I’d be alive. There would have been nobody to steer us in a better direction. So fortunately for me, I fell into having a good mentor and that was the start of it for me. Someone with a ton of experience took me under their wing and showed me how to safely travel in avalanche terrain.
BCA: Once you figured out you loved avalanches, how did you pursue a career in avalanche safety?
TM: My love for avalanches started when I was 17. I can’t remember the exact avalanche that inspired me, but I remember seeing one and thinking it was really cool. I barely made it through high school, and I hated the idea of college. Science and math were not my strong suits. But I was fascinated by avalanches, so I started to take pictures of them because I wanted to submit what I saw in the mountains to the avalanche center. I still hadn’t taken an avalanche class. So, I started submitting photos of avalanches to the Utah Avalanche Center. Rick Hoffman’s best friend’s name is Larry Dunne, and he was the chief meteorologist at the National Weather Service. If anyone knows, the UAC and the NWS have a partnership and that’s actually where our offices are now located here in Salt Lake City. So Larry got me connected to what we now call our observer program. If you see an avalanche and take a photo of it and submit it to the UAC, you get $10. I thought that was pretty cool and started reporting on my observed conditions throughout the day.
And then in 2009, I signed up for the Canadian Avalanche Association Professional Industry Training program Level 1 Operator’s Course. It’s one week long, 56 hours, and it’s basically a pro-level training course for those seeking employment with avalanche risk, mitigation, and operations for ski areas, avalanche centers, highways, and guiding.
In 2009 I came out of that class, came back to Utah and like anyone who’s seeking employment in this field in Utah, I called Bruce Tremper, the director of the Utah Avalanche Center. He told me there weren’t any job openings, but that I should reach out to Craig Gordon who was in charge of the Know Before You Go (KYBG) program. So I reached out to Craig and he got me started on presenting the KYBG talks. They weren’t the glamorous ones—I was talking to scout groups with ten people, but I fell in love and all I wanted to do was preach the avalanche gospel, so I soon started doing 50 to 100 talks a year and I started getting more involved with the Avalanche Center.
Around that same year, Alecs Barton was killed on Kessler Peak on January 28, 2012,
and I remember the very next day I went up and investigated the accident with Craig Gordon and it was pretty surreal for me. It was one of my first times doing an avalanche investigation. He was 25 years old and I might have been 24 at the time. He was a splitboarder who was new to the scene with 2 to 3 years of experience. He’d taken a Level 1 avalanche class and was stoked on the mountains. He was the exact person I could have been without having a strong mentor. The number of lines he skied in his short three-year career was impressive. In fact, he skied more lines in the Wasatch Mountains than I have today with 18 years of experience. And I remember standing in the hole that he was dug out of with fresh blood and I think it really hit home for me. I really connected with the fact that I could be that person.
BCA: You describe yourself as being very conservative with your choices in the backcountry. Why?
TM: As the years ticked by and I continued investigating accidents and close calls, more and more of this hit home. The more I went out on high danger days with my job, the more I remotely triggered avalanches and pulled out test slopes and I really started to get experience with how avalanches really work. It was eye-opening. Fast forward to today and now with 10 years of experience with the UAC, I am more conservative today than I ever have been in my snow and avalanche career.
And it’s not because I don’t love to ride in avalanche terrain. I love riding steep lines in face-shot powder. But my risk tolerance for avalanches is very small, so the conditions have to line up perfectly for me. I can’t be dealing with deep persistent avalanches that break into faceted layers. For me, if there are faceted snow and faceted layers within the snowpack, I go to what I know which is that avalanches don’t happen in anything under 30 degrees. I don’t want to deal with a persistent slab avalanche, therefore I avoid it altogether.
Obviously, anyone who’s getting into the backcountry has to have a beacon, shovel, and probe and you have to check the beacon at the trailhead every single time. I just had another one of my friends, a colleague who worked for the avalanche center for two years die in an avalanche just outside of Jackson Hole on Taylor mountain—his beacon was in his pocket and not turned on. He was very educated, and we really don’t know why it was like that, but we’ve all gotten to a trailhead before where we just start talking, and all of a sudden we’re walking and it’s really easy to skip that small step.
I choose to wear an airbag. I don’t mind hauling up the little extra weight. If I’m going to get caught in an avalanche I want to stack all of the odds in my favor. You bet I’m going to pull that airbag the second I see snow moving around me. Then after the essential gear, my number one tool in the backcountry in an inclinometer. If you travel a lot and don’t have a lot of information on whether a specific slope avalanches or not, it’s my go-to tool.
BCA: What are the fundamentals you’d tell every backcountry tourer to remember before heading out for the day?
TM: If I was going to break it down into steps, obviously step one is get the right gear: beacon, shovel, probe. Step two: take an avalanche class. You need to know how to pull off a rescue. But rescue gear is like being a janitor—somebody has already made the mess and you’re just there to clean it up with a lot of the gear you carry. The biggest thing we can do is learn how not to get caught in avalanches. And I think that comes from taking an avalanche class and then going slow.
The problem with today’s world is that social media is a rat race. Everyone is posting what line they just tagged and it’s easy to get wrapped up in that, but it has nothing to do with the snowpack and understanding avalanche risks. So if you’re just starting out, take it slow. Ride terrain less than 30 degrees for a whole year after taking an avalanche class. Hone your eyeballs on what slope angles are what by using that inclinometer, and then obviously you read the forecast every day. And then get a mentor.